COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland has discovered that the road back in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings is through the paint.
The Terps eschewed the perimeter and attacked the basket last night, and a 91-79 victory over upstart Virginia before a sellout crowd of 14,500 at Cole Field House was probably their most efficient offensive performance of the college basketball season. After an 0-3 start in the ACC, No. 25 Maryland has won four of its past five to climb to .500 in the conference.
Maryland (15-6, 4-4) attempted a season-high 38 free throws, and only 10 came after Virginia (15-6, 5-3) fell behind by double digits with 9: 38 left. The complementary statistic was a season-low six three-pointers, as the Terps followed coach Gary Williams' mandate to get the ball inside against the smaller Cavaliers.
"We definitely got the message after we didn't get the ball inside at North Carolina," sophomore guard Juan Dixon said, referring to Maryland's only loss since mid-January. "The big fellows weren't asking for the ball, but they asked for it at Florida State, and they asked for it tonight. That's the game plan for the rest of the season. Teams know it, and the question is, can they stop it?"
Dixon said it was Maryland's biggest win of the season.
A four-game conference winning streak had made Virginia the surprise team in the ACC, but Maryland built a commanding 39-25 lead in rebounds, recognized the Cavaliers' defensive traps and had its best shooting percentage against an ACC opponent in more than a year. The Terps made 56.9 percent (29-for-51) of their attempts, and that was after an 0-for-7 start.
Sophomore center Lonny Baxter made seven of his 10 shots in the second half and collected a season-high 24 points for the second straight game.
"I just attacked strong," Baxter said. "It was take no prisoners tonight."
ACC preseason Player of the Year Terence Morris had 18 points and 11 rebounds, his 12th career double double. Dixon had 19 points and six assists, and sophomore wing Danny Miller chipped in 14 points. Freshman point guard Steve Blake had a career-high seven rebounds, six assists, only two turnovers and the latest in a series of defensive gems.
Virginia's Donald Hand came in with a 16.0 scoring average and co-ACC Player of the Week honors, and left with five points on 1-for-9 shooting.
"We wanted to stop his dribble penetration," Dixon said of Hand, "and Steve did a tremendous job of that."
Sophomore forward Chris Williams had 22 points on 9-for-19 shooting, but the Cavaliers were outscored 30-14 at the line. Coach Pete Gillen took his last timeout with 14: 26 left, without an antidote for the manner in which Maryland moved the ball and attacked the basket.
"We didn't defend like we should have," Gillen said. "They did a good job running their offense, and we didn't stop anybody. Maryland is a big, physical team, and they played very well tonight. Baxter did anything he wanted against whoever was on him."
Maryland never trailed after the first nine minutes and was on top from the time Morris scored on a lay-in from the right side that made it 33-31 with 2: 45 left in the first half. It led by as many as seven in the first half, but its cushion shrunk to 41-40 in the second minute of the second half. The Terps responded with a 14-7 run that pushed the spread up to 55-47 with 13: 52 left.
Adam Hall followed with one of Virginia's nine three-pointers, and his three-point play helped the Cavaliers close to 60-55 with 12: 07 remaining, but Maryland put together an 11-3 spurt and never looked back. A key basket in that stretch came when Blake dribbled down the shot clock and made an 18-foot jumper for a 69-58 spread with 8: 25 left.
Virginia hung in, down 75-65 with 5: 46 left, but Maryland continued to pile up the points against its ineffectual pressure. Baxter got two of his 18 second-half points at the free-throw line; Miller knocked down an open three; and Dixon swished a foul-line jumper for an 82-65 bulge. It grew as large as 90-72 on a put-back by Morris with 2: 15 left.
The closing minutes resembled a drill. Maryland made 17 of its final 24 shots, 70.8 percent.
Maryland had a 41-36 lead at the half, but Virginia scored the first four points out of the break while the Terps searched for their offensive bearings. Ball movement produced a dunk for Baxter; Dixon converted a neat catch in transition; and two Baxter free throws got the lead up to 47-40 with 17: 40 left.
Virginia had tied it at 31 with seven unanswered points, but then the Terps remembered the lessons of the loss at North Carolina, when they were outscored 24-7 at the foul line. They attacked the rack and went on a 10-3 run, with Morris scoring off an entry pass and adding four free throws.
The Cavaliers would not allow Morris access to the basket early. His only points in the first 15 minutes came on a pair of three-pointers. Maryland took just one other shot beyond the arc in the first half.
Virginia must play at ACC leader Duke on Saturday, and Maryland will try to maintain its surge at home at 4 p.m. Sunday against N.C. State.
"We started 0-3 and we could have quit," Williams said of the Terps' stumble out of the gate in the ACC race. "Now it's just beginning. It's like the back nine of the Masters."
Next for Terps
Opponent: North Carolina State (15-4, 5-3 ACC)
Site: Cole Field House, College Park
When: Sunday, 4 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)